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Caught in the web of online addiction: Youth succumbing to new form of dependence

With online access and gaming getting cheaper, it is easy to get hooked on to the new window to entertainment.

india Updated: Sep 05, 2017 10:00 IST
Anonna Dutt and Sadaguru Pandit
Anonna Dutt and Sadaguru Pandit
New Delhi/Mumbai, Hindustan Times
Online addiction,Internet addiction,Blue whale challenge
While normal cases of online addiction have not garnered as much attention as the suicide-goading Blue Whale challenge, which has claimed 130 lives worldwide, there has been a steady rise in people looking for help.(Shutterstock)

Sunny D’souza* had to be dragged by his parents to a psychiatrist in Mumbai’s Andheri. Over several months, the class 7 boy had gradually reduced speaking to them and used to lock himself up. When talked to, his response would be mostly muted or violent or an outburst.

At the clinic, Sunny was glued to his mobile. Within a moment, the psychiatrist smelt the rat.

“Online addiction is the new source for mental disturbances,” he said, not wanting to be named.

Categorised by experts as the dependence on technology like mobile phones, computer, internet, social media, online gaming and even pornography, online addiction is a behavioural problem like gambling, but is yet to be formally declared as an addiction.

With online access and gaming getting cheaper, it is easy to get hooked on to the new window to entertainment.

While normal cases have not garnered as much experts’ attention as the suicide-goading Blue Whale Challenge which has claimed 130 lives worldwide, there has been a steady rise in people looking for medical help. The psychiatrist treating Sunny revealed that he used to spend 12-15 hours on his mobile.

A case report published in New Delhi’s Dr Ram Manohar Lohia hospital last year explained how two brothers, 19 and 22, skipped meals, urinated and defecated in their pants because of a gaming addiction. In fact, twice their house was broken into and valuables stolen while they were engrossed in a game.

Another 9-year-old boy had to be admitted to a city hospital after he cut his arm with a kitchen knife because his parents took away his cell phone.

Young males at risk

The most common cause for people seeking help at the special behavioural addiction clinic at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) was online real-time gaming. And the prominent age-group for online addiction is late teens to youth in the early-20s.

Dr Sagar Mundada, psychiatrist at KEM Hospital, says mostly school and college students are brought by their parents with complains of irritability, spending less time with family, disturbed sleep patterns and shorter attention spans.

Cannot concentrate on studies There is loss of appetite The grades start falling The child is not getting enough sleep or is having disturbed sleep Child does not take interest in going out Withdraws from friends and family and keeps to their room Stops enjoying hobbies or playing Getting restless, irritable and angry when asked to or try to cut down

Dr Yatan Balhara, professor of psychiatry at National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, finds that online addiction is also more common in men as they have “more exposure to the addiction-causing agent”.

Dr Balhara, who sees working professionals and newly-married men at his clinic, notes that a low performance in academics or work is a key indicator of the addiction’s tipping point.

Married men also visit him when there is a discord in relationships because of the addiction.

Extent in numbers

An ICMR-backed study done by National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in urban areas of Bengaluru found that 4.1% of the 2,755 people surveyed were addicted to cell phones and 1.3% to the internet.

Several smaller studies restricted to particular cities – Jaipur, Mumbai, Bangalore, Nanded and Jabalpur – found mild internet addiction of 24-34% in subjects and moderate addiction at anywhere between 7-24%.

This is in comparison to 6% internet addiction globally, according to an international study. The rise in numbers has prompted many hospitals to start clinics for online de-addiction.

“We see at least three to four cases of online addiction in children every month,” says Dr Mundada.

Dr Rajiv Mehta, a consulting psychiatrist at Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram hospital, receives around 8-10 cases of ‘mobile dependence’ each month. Of these, almost 50% are addicted to social media websites and another 20% are addicted to taking selfies, he said.

Difficult to detect

Experts said apart from the immediate worry of mental disturbance, there are dangers of serious illnesses like schizophrenia, early depression and suicidal tendencies due to rejection.

“Also, it is difficult to detect internet addiction because it does not harm you in the same way that smoking or drinking does,” says Dr Balhara.

Dr Mundada rues that the awareness is low and thus, the issue is largely underreported, when compared to other mental illnesses.

Turn off to de-addict

“The therapy for internet de-addiction is all about teaching the patients what is healthy and unhealthy use, teaching them how to effectively follow a time-table, prioritise their activities and learning when the use is harmful for them,” Dr Balhara said.

Doctors say the way to reduce online addiction in children is to open conversation channels.

DECIDE TO QUIT: Think of the harmful effects the addiction has on your studies and decide to quit
MAKE A PLAN: If you are unable to keep yourself from logging in, make a plan for slowly scaling down the amount of time you spend on the website
KEEP A JOURNAL: Note how many times you log in and how much time you spend on a website. Also note how do you feel every time you log in and log out
DON’T LOSE TRACK OF TIME: Once you make a schedule, stick to it. Take help of a stop-watch if you are unable to control the amount of time you spend online on your own
LIMIT ACCESS: Make your study table a laptop-, mobile-free zone so that you can concentrate on your studies. Better still, give your phone to your parents or keep it somewhere where it is not easily accessible
IDENTIFY TRIGGERS: Keeping a journal will help you in what makes you feel like going back to your favourite website
DISABLE NOTIFICATIONS: Disable notification for apps like Facebook, WhatApp, Instagram or any other app you constantly monitor. This will prevent you from rushing to the phone every time you hear the ping
GO OUT: Go out, play, exercise or take part in a hobby

Child psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty suggests that parents should keep a watch on simple signs like irritability, extreme changes in sleep pattern, restlessness, social media behaviour, and suicidal jokes or thoughts in children, and communicate immediately.

“Surveillance is not rocket science. Check the web history, see what sites your child is visiting and talk about it, rather than setting rules or punishing them,” said Dr Parul Tank, psychiatrist at Wockhardt hospital.

“Being aggressive in such situations never helps as a parent. If you want to know about their lives, then you have to become a friend rather than being an all-knowing parent,” said Dr Mundada, KEM hospital.

Unlike alcohol and tobacco de-addiction, there are no medicines or replacement therapy.

And so, the success rate of therapy for online addiction is lower than other forms of de-addiction programmes.

“The success rate is 30-40% on average for substance addictions, meaning that those many people do not relapse and go back to their old habits. With better professionals, the rate may go up as high as 60%. However, with online addiction the success rate is as low as 10%,” said Dr Mehta.

The success ratio is higher in children who are living with their parents as they can help the children in maintaining the prescribed schedule.

Take this quiz to find out if you’re an online addict

(* Name changed)

First Published: Sep 05, 2017 07:01 IST